How Bikes Can Save the World

Transcript of Ignite Spokane talk I gave Sept. 29, 2010. I’ve added links to sources and a few side notes in the transcript.

So you’re expecting the talk with the data and the graphs and the guilt and you want that? See me afterwards.

I’m going to take a different direction on this inspired by Portland blogger Dana Putnam.

Why I bike: I am cheap

First of all, show of hands—how many of you know what gas costs?

I have no idea. I bike because I am cheap. I don’t pay for parking, I don’t worry about insurance. My daughter who’s here tonight had a blow-out on her tire the other day at a stoplight. One hundred and ten bucks. Except those things have four of them and you have to replace them all. I don’t like that part.

How many people would like a raise of over $7,000 a year? Okay, don’t talk to your boss, that’s how much it costs you to run your car. That’s according to AAA and that’s when gas cost about $2.30 a gallon.

I understand it’s more now? I’m not sure, of course.  [Added info: Found a different AAA source with more current data and the cost of operating a vehicle is actually over $9,500 a year.]

Why I bike:  I am lazy

I also bike because I am lazy. How many of you had to walk to the parking lot to get your car and then drive here, find a parking spot, walk to the building.... Do you hear all that walking?

I pretty much bike point to point. I am so lazy that sometimes I actually take my bike inside. This redefines indoor parking, I believe. My ride to work is also mostly downhill so I coast.

It’s a little counterintuitive but you can bike if you’re lazy.

Why I bike:  I am impatient

There are many reasons—my mom might call these character flaws, I think—to bike.

I bike because I’m impatient. I always hated waiting at stoplights. There really isn’t time to finish reading the article before the light changes for one thing; you can’t do your nails. But when I’m on my bike and I get to the stoplight it’s really just a chance to catch my breath.

So I’ve got a new attitude about stoplights: They’re a good thing. I bet you don’t share that.

Another thing for you—even if you’re never going to get out of your car, if all of us on our bikes and all the people on the bus do get back in our cars, look what we do to the street. We’re in front of you now at the stoplight. So if you’re impatient you want us to keep riding (or riding the bus).

I also hate one-ways because there’s no point to going like this and like this and like this [gesturing to draw three sides of the block].

I get off my bike and I walk a block, get back in the lane and keep going. I am continuing to move towards my destination while you’re stuck at the light. So if you’re impatient biking is great for you.

Why I bike:  I am a control freak

I’m also a little bit of a control freak although I thought of titling this “mechanically inept.” And for the men in the room you don’t have to fess up. But when I take my car to the shop and they tell me a lot of things I don’t understand and I have to pay them a lot of money—remember, I’m cheap and I’m impatient—I don’t like that part.

But I can actually fix my own flat on the bike. The technology has actually not changed that much since the Wright Brothers. I get to feel like I’m in control at this point. It’s a great feeling.

These are other reasons—I’m not saying this is about you, it’s about me—

Additional reasons to ride a bike: Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem—or, flip side, big ego—

When I’m pedaling and I feel the wind and I’m making the wind myself because I’m going so fast? Awesome. I’m not going that fast—it’s like 17 miles an hour and you’re going to pass me—but I feel great about it.

Additional reasons to ride a bike:  Desperate (but successful!) attempt to appear cool/hip/trend-setting

This one is not about you at all—maybe it’s about me—but if you think about what’s cool right now it is not you in your SUV on the way to Costco to pick up a gallon of ranch dressing and five pounds of Tater Tots. You’re not going to be on the tourism brochure cover or the magazine cover – I think this picture of a zillion cars is the people leaving Cirque du Soleil the other night.

You know what picture there is going to be on the tourism brochure cover, don’t you? This is a total set-up. You know what it takes to be cool.

The only thing missing from this shot is the farmers’ market vegetables. So, you can be hip and cool and urban just by getting on a bike. Who knew it was so simple? I thought it cost a lot more, actually, and shopping at better stores as well.

Additional reasons to ride a bike: Excuse to shop

There are other sorts of character issues. This is an excuse to shop for men as well as women. If you like buying something and then bragging to your friends about how yours is better than theirs biking is totally for you. There’s more than one rider here tonight so I know you know what I’m talking about. Technical fabrics, special food—it’s basically sugar in a pouch but it’s still special food.

Additional reasons to ride a bike: Huge rush that comes from saving the world

You knew I was going to do a little bit of this piece. If you like knowing what’s good for other people and telling them about it, biking is totally your thing.

When people are talking about the problems of the world—it’s air pollution, it’s peak oil, it’s urban sprawl, it’s diabetes and obesity—if you ride a bike you’re not responsible for any of that! How cool is that?

So you can have this— * 

Or you can have that.

He brings us back to the cool urban trend-setting piece of this.

We do have a lot of problems in the world. I do think that biking is the only thing that solves a lot of these problems all at once. You do get to be healthier and save money and all of that. But also, it’s so simple a child can do it and it’s fun.

Remember when you learned to ride a bike and you had that sense of freedom and "I don’t have to wait for Mom or Dad to get in the car"--which was the limitation in your life at that point—you could ride your bike.

If you have any of these character flaws you don’t have to admit it out loud. Or maybe it’s psychological issues and therapy costs a lot. You could take a little bit of that money and you could ride a bike.

*On the video when I mention skipping it's a reference to the talk earlier that evening by Patty Sanders about the virtues of skipping to make the world a better place. I left it out of this transcript because it only made sense in context at the live event.

Related Reading

I'm Dreaming of a.... (cue music)

Quick—name a song from the show “White Christmas.”

No, not that one. Too obvious.

How about “Sisters”? Or “Blue Skies”?

There’s more than one great number in the Spokane Civic Theatre production of “White Christmas” in its Northwest premiere, right here in Bing Crosby’s hometown.

To the credit of Spokane’s talent pool I didn’t think once about Bing Crosby (or about Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, who played the other three major roles in the original film).

This despite the fact that as a kid I watched every one of the Crosby/Hope “Road” movies with Dorothy Lamour multiple times, along with plenty of other movies starring some combination of the singing, dancing and acting talents of the mid-20th century.

Instead I marveled at the talent we have here. What, did my mom miss the memo or something? How do all these adults know how to tap dance like that?! She should have kept hauling me to dance lessons but nooooo, it was my little sister who had the dance ability and got to keep going after I quit.

I said before in my review of The Cemetery Club at the Civic that I’m no theater reviewer. I just love going and entering into the magic that falls over the room when the lights dim and the orchestra (or, in this case, fairly small ensemble) strikes up the first note or the first line is spoken. And magic it was, clear up to the end when the audience participated right on cue.

Of special note for me:
  • I was blown away by the tap dancing.
  • I loved the singing.
  • Kevin Partridge reminded me of Michael Buble when he sang “Blue Skies” and struck just the right expression after his first kiss from the rich-voiced Betty Haynes (played by Andrea Dawson).
  • Their voices blended so beautifully in the combo number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep Is the Ocean.”
  • Kathie Doyle-Lipe as Martha “The Megaphone” Watson was spunky and funny as always—and those cartwheels are a scene stealer.
  • When Elizabeth Martin as little Susan Waverly finally got to belt out a number everyone was delighted by her talent.
  • The staging for the number in which General Waverly’s men are represented by shadowy silhouettes marching behind the backdrop was particularly striking.
  • The women’s costumes were wonderful, with some beautiful rich fabrics.
  • I always marvel at set design and how they can put so many places into such compact spaces; the same is true again here, with everything from a nightclub and a train to a barn.
  • All four leads had to undress and dress again on stage (and probably thanked their lucky stars that undergarments were pretty substantial in the 1950s).
  • Special credit goes to Kevin Partridge for dealing nicely with a stuck zipper—he had us all in suspense as to how he would handle it if it wouldn’t go up.
  • Paige Wamsley and Jillian Wylie as Rita and Rhoda entered into the spirit of their roles as the Oxydol girls and the "lite" version of the two female leads, Siri Hafso as Judy Haynes and Andrea Dawson as Betty Haynes.
  • Ed Bryan as Ezekiel Foster showed just how much humor you can pack into two things: walking really, r-e-a-l-l-y slowly and saying, “Ayup.” Oh, make that three things: giving an unexpected gift and a hug.

The scene that really got me, though? The discussion about what you do with a general when the time for war has passed. I couldn’t help but think of all the men and women coming home now, wartorn and marked for life. We can’t all just head to Vermont for a nice Christmas Eve variety show at an inn and make their lives whole.

That isn’t the point of the play, obviously. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming production in the best sense of the word “heartwarming,” at least for me as a sentimental woman who cries easily (and who is now wondering how hard it would be to learn to tap dance at my age….).

It’s no wonder that as of two days ago the Civic was down to around 1,000 tickets out of a total 8,000 seats available. Get yours now.

Signs I Would Post Somewhere

  • It’s a parking lot, not a racetrack.
  • What exactly about the concept of “pedestrian” is unfamiliar?
  • The yellow light does not signify “accelerate mid-block.”
  • You own the car, not the lot.
  • It says “Stop”—not “Roll.”
  • Yes, bike riders, that means you too.
What signs would you put up?

Image created using

Image created using 

It's All in the Attitude

Busy, busy, busy. Rush, rush, rush. We’re an impatient society, always in a hurry to get somewhere. We’re like the automated cleaning devices in The Fifth Elementas described by Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (played with evil deliciousness, or delicious evilness, by Gary Oldman): “Look at all these little things. So busy now. Notice how each one is useful. What a lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color.”

Nowhere is this kind of bustling around more evident than in our traffic patterns (although “lovely ballet” doesn’t really describe the intersection of Sprague and Division all that well…. And come to think of it, the little critters were cleaning up after destruction—how apropos).

The idea that by hurrying we are somehow more productive, more in line with “progress,” more efficient with our time pushes people to push the speed limit, squeeze the orange at the traffic light, execute a rolling stop instead of a full stop, glance without really looking, assume there’s no one coming—you know where I’m going with this and Planetizen has a good essay on just how wrong some of these assumptions about time and productivity are.*

Those little creatures in The Fifth Element didn’t have much choice—scurrying around was programmed into their very being. We, on the other hand, have choices. As Kent’s Bike Blog points out, by slowing down we give ourselves the gift of time.

I was one of those impatient drivers. Red light? Time to tap my fingers on the steering wheel and mutter under my breath, “C’mon, change!”  I chose routes to avoid traffic lights so I could take my destiny into my own hands.

I’m also susceptible to the pressure created by the tailgating driver behind me who doesn’t like it if I really observe the speed limit, as if pushing me from behind will speed me up. But it does, doesn’t it? Imperceptibly you speed up to create a gap, which the other driver promptly closes again, and next thing you know you’re meeting that nice Officer Olson who ran a speed trap on Ray a couple of months ago (not that I have any specific reason for being aware of this, of course).

Where was I? Oh, right, impatient driver.

Then I started biking. My calculation of time is so different now!

I look more at distance than at time, for one thing, to see whether something is bikeable given other constraints in the schedule. Then I work out about how long it should take me to get there. Not because I’ll decide not to bike if it takes “too much” time, though—just to allow for the time it takes to bike.

What a change! I no longer worry about “losing” time. How can you lose time anyway? You don’t have it stockpiled in a big jar from which you withdraw some when you need it. Time just passes and our experience of that passage is really subjective.

Time can pass at what feels like an infuriatingly s-l-o-w rate while I pound the steering wheel and grind my teeth. Or it can pass without me even noticing while I coast downhill, smell the coffee roaster I pass on my way to work, and watch for potholes so I can pick my line of travel to be predictable and visible for the driver behind me and not get my teeth bashed together by the cracks on Sprague. (I appear to have a thing about teeth, kind of like my thing about fingernails.)

I still try to take routes that avoid traffic lights, mostly because sometimes my bike doesn’t trip the signal. But if I do hit a red light it doesn’t trigger teeth-gnashing; instead, I take it as a chance to catch my breath. It’s welcome, not resented, and that makes a lot of difference in my trip to work, or through downtown to get to a meeting.

I can’t tell you how much more relaxing it is to arrive at work after this kind of trip than after the teeth-gnashing, steering-wheel-pounding kind. Since negative stress is hard on your cells but exercise can offset this effect I may even be extending my years on the planet. How’s that for saving time?

*All this rushing around in the car at least saves a minute or two, right? Wrong.

If you do the calculations, the difference between driving at 30mph vs. 35mph over a distance of six miles (which I picked because that’s the approximate distance between 57th/Regal and Riverside/Post, or Country Homes Blvd/Lincoln Rd. and Riverside/Post, so it seems like an average Spokane commute), is less than two minutes.  

What about the difference between biking and driving—huge, right? Wrong again.

Assume I bike at an average speed of 15 (which I sure can’t do going up the Post Street hill, but I can do 35+ coming down the Bernard/Washington arterial so it averages out coming and going). If I had this same six-mile route I’d spend 24 minutes on the bike vs. 12 minutes if I drove at 30mph (ignoring traffic lights and school zones for the sake of comparison).

So over the course of a round trip I would spend 24 more minutes biking than the driver, in return for which I’ve had all the exercise I need in the day, zero money spent on gas or parking, zero frustration at red lights, and (I hope) zero damage to my tooth enamel.

Yeah, I’ll take that.
Related items:

Biking As Downtime and Other Musings on Overproductivity

I’ve noted before in this space that I have a slight tendency to overdo. The world offers up lots of kudos for this. In fact, I just won an award you might attribute to overdoing, in a way (the 2010 YWCA Women of Achievement Award for Volunteer Community Service, which was an incredible honor and this isn’t meant to diss the award!).

Joining, doing and leading are lifelong habits of mine. At the same time I’m pretty fiercely dedicated to downtime, some of which is cleverly disguised as biking for transportation or for "exercise" (fun).

This didn’t used to be the case, mind you. I used to just add more and more and more and more and more (you get the idea) to the list. I’d end up feeling overwhelmed, feeling as if I’d failed people to whom I had made a commitment because I hadn’t done everything that I knew I could bring to the cause.

Note that most of the time the only person who knew there was “supposed to be more” was me. I have a deep-seated tendency to, as we like to say around our house, should on myself. I should have done this, I should do that. And there are so many good causes you should help!

Somewhere along the way I decided to stop saying yes to everyone who asked so I could be more present for the ones to whom I had already said yes, including my family. I tried to perfect a response along the lines of, “I can’t give it what I want to be able to give and I’m not willing to settle for less.” Much to my amazement, it’s okay to say no and (as far as I know, anyway) I haven’t lost any friends or broken any furniture.

And now for biking, as the title promised.

Biking can be a discipline to which you bring all the shoulding and compulsive over-achieving possible. (I know this because I’m married to someone who trains for bike racing.)

Fortunately for me, I’d already outgrown some of the Western world’s thinking about athletic achievement thanks to a yoga practice of several years. In yoga, where you are in your practice is where you are. Force it and you’ll snap a hamstring (which makes a sound like a rifle shot, as I know from painful firsthand experience).

Settle into your practice, though, instead of striving constantly for “more” and “should” and “better” and “perfect”; bring everything you have into that moment; and you will have a deeply satisfying experience that uses every cell and fiber in your body. (And you do improve so that ambition thing gets satisfied eventually.)

Biking is much the same way. Like yoga, it provides a wonderful practice opportunity for mindfulness meditation. Riding in traffic is particularly good for this. You pay attention only to your cycling, drivers and vehicles around you, pedestrians who may step in front of you, road conditions, and the other factors that affect your safety.

There is no cruise control on a bike, no “set and forget.” The street that one day is dry and bare may have a touch of frost the next morning so you have to brake a little sooner.  If you’re riding with the flow of traffic you’re constantly adjusting pedaling pace to maintain a safe distance as drivers speed up mid-block, then hit the brakes at the next red light (the world needs more hypermilers). And like yoga, the more you do the better you get.

This may sound like a lot of input. Compare it to a workday with ringing phones, people coming into your office with questions, the email notice blooming constantly in the corner of your monitor, a dozen or more tabs open in your browser--and I actually have two monitors at work, not one, so I have twice the real estate in which to create screens full of competing projects. 

Paying attention to only one purpose--riding my bike--instead of dealing with multiple purposes and priorities is incredibly relaxing by comparison.

When I ride my bike I’m completely in the moment. At the same time I have created a space in which I cannot be distracted by electronic technology, thus improving my ability to focus. Much as it may amaze some of my online acquaintances to realize this, I do not actually tweet every five minutes.

When I think back on the commute I used to have, driving from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane and back every day, the only thing I miss is my local public radio station. But even that provided constant stimulation—I was never without some kind of input.

Around 50% of all car trips in the U.S. are three miles or less. This is ridiculously short—the engine doesn’t even warm up. But on a bike that distance takes about 15 minutes, a wonderful length of time that lets you clear your head and make some space in your life.

Biking is downtime, a precious commodity in our plugged-in, wired, always-on world. And it’s fun.

Related posts:

Autumn Wild Rice Not-a-Recipe

Rhubarb hit me during a yoga class. Specifically, during down dog.

No, this isn’t some new yogini ritual. I’d been trying to decide what to do with some ingredients I prepared the night before: an acorn squash cut in half and baked with a little butter and brown sugar, and wild rice with toasted chopped walnuts and pecans.

I’d thrown these onto the stove/oven as a side project during a major stir-fry cooking fest to provide a running start on a future meal since both ingredients take time to cook.

I had in mind a recipe I used to make years ago that came from Bon Appetit or Gourmet or one of those other glossy full-color food porn publications. That one involved wild rice, walnuts cooked with butter and sugar, sautéed diced onions and celery, and fresh orange zest and orange juice. With a little salt and pepper, those ingredients make magic (as long as it’s fresh orange zest/juice).

My cooking dilemma: No oranges on hand and I didn’t want to make a special trip to the store for several reasons: 
  • my efforts to eat mostly local food and the lack of an orange-growing season in eastern Washington; 
  • my belief that if I’m only getting one or two things at the store it makes no sense to drive so I bike; and
  • my desire to hunker down in my home nest as the days get shorter, which short-circuits my desire to ride right past my house and keep heading uphill to the store, especially after the sweat-inducing flow class my friend Betsy teaches at Spokane Yoga Shala.
So it’s a good thing that rhubarb hit me. I knew I had a couple of small bags of rhubarb I’d blanched and thrown into the freezer earlier in the season. I also had on hand apples we picked recently at Green Bluff, red onions from the farmers’ market, and celery (not local—Sweet Husband picked it up for his killer fiery marinara sauce which is so good I won’t ever squawk about the source of any of the ingredients). Tasted in my head, the combination of tart rhubarb and snappy apples made a great complement to the rest of the ingredients.

This is a Not-a-Recipe because if you like to cook, you know how to do all these things and what proportions of ingredients you want so you’ll just take this as a jumping-off point. Basic list:
  • Wild rice (I cooked 1-1/3 c. but someone ate some of it before I got home J)
  • Walnuts and/or pecans (chopped around ¼ c. of each, toasted in pan with a little butter)
  • Red onions (or shallots or regular onions; I had somewhere around 1 c. sliced)
  • Celery (a couple of stalks diced)
  • Rhubarb (approx. 1 c. diced)
  • Apples (2 small apples diced; I don’t peel them because I like the pretty color and want the fiber and flavor)
  • Salt/pepper to taste (which I hate as an instruction in something you have to bake because how can you taste/adjust until it’s too late, but that totally works with this dish)
I sautéed the onions briefly, added the celery, then the rhubarb, then the apples. I wanted everything except the onions to still have some crunch.

I thought I’d stuff this all into the middle of the two squash halves but changed my mind, scooped out and squashed the squash, and added a dash each of cloves and nutmeg. You could go with cinnamon and ginger too (or instead) and it would make a much better food porn shot if I'd gone with the stuffed squash set-up. As my sainted father would say, it all ends up in the same place anyway.

Eaten together, this combo is autumn on a fork. But if you get hit with an orange instead of rhubarb, that’s fine too.